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August 20, 2004

Are you ready to rumble?

Check out this highly entertaining Washington Post article today on the Olympic Water Polo Tournament:

Water polo is a combination of swimming, soccer and basketball, plus wrestling, boxing and mugging. The players are phenomenal athletes who perform amazing feats of speed, grace, stamina and ball-handling. They also perform amazing feats of kicking, punching, scratching, clawing and choking. And that's just the men. The women are also fond of tearing each other's bathing suits off.

Uh, what channel is the Olympic Water Polo Tournament on?

"It gets pretty feisty," agrees Natalie Golda, 22, a defender on the U.S. women's team. "On top of the water, it looks pretty mellow -- you're passing the ball around -- but under water, they're grabbing, they're punching and people are getting dunked. Sometimes they'll pull you under water for so long, you're thinking, 'If I don't get air, soon, I'll be in trouble.' "

And, how exactly does this whole "tear off the swimsuit" thing happen?:

If your eyes follow the ball, you see a fair amount of fighting, but the real action, brutality-wise, occurs as players who don't have the ball fight for position in the prime real estate in front of the goal. . .

Frequently, a player will suddenly disappear under the water, as if yanked down by an invisible hand. That's because he was yanked down by an invisible hand -- the hand of an opponent.

For men, the preferred method of dunking an opponent is to grab the body and yank down, Golda says. For women, it's grabbing the opponent's swimsuit and yanking down.

"They'll grab the suit in the back and twist it, and sometimes it'll tear off," she says. "So you lose quite a few suits."

When that happens, she says, "you play as long as you can and then you get subbed out."

This article may be the most effective advertisement in history for an obscure Olympic sport.

Equally hilarious is the coach of the U.S. mens' team, who apparently knows a thing or two about how to play the game:

After the U.S. men's team beat Kazakhstan 9-6 on Tuesday, Ratko Rudic, the legendary coach of the American team, lumbered into the "mix zone" where players meet the media, grumbling to reporters about the brutality of the Kazakh team.

"This is not football, it's water polo," he fumed through his thick, bristly mustache. "If some teams can't get the result they want, this is how they play."

"This game was so violent," said Rudic, 56. "I can't remember such a violent game."

It was an odd statement coming from Rudic, who has never been mistaken for Mahatma Gandhi. . .

Coaching Italy in Sydney in 2000, Rudic argued so vociferously with a referee that he had to be restrained by police, and he was later suspended from the sport for a year over the incident. That didn't hurt his career: When the year was up, he was hired by USA Water Polo to whip the mediocre American team into shape.

And now, in Athens, Rudic was shocked -- shocked! -- at the violence in water polo.

"Who will protect us?" he asked.

However, Coach Rudic's assessment that the Kazakhs were guilty of excessive violence was not shared by all the U.S. team members:

Defenseman Dan Klatt, 25, who scored one goal, didn't think the Kazakhs were particularly brutal, . .

"A couple guys got punched in the face and a couple got kicked in the face," he said with a shrug. "But that's just part of the game."

But then the interview was interrupted by a television shot of another game:

Up on the big TV screen was a candid shot from the pool: A Russian player appeared to be giving a Serb player a big bear hug. The Serb hugged him back.

For a split second, it looked like one of those heartwarming moments of Olympic brotherhood. Then the two men started trying to drown each other, and you realized it was just another heartwarming moment of Olympic water polo.

Enjoy the entire piece.

Posted by Tom at August 20, 2004 7:38 AM |

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